US supply chains and rail service nearly came to a screeching halt in September when unionized rail workers threatened to go on strike (a tentative agreement was reached). Nurses, teachers, airport employees, and other workers around the country have also been organizing recently to secure better pay and working conditions. This is even though US union membership has steadily declined in the last forty years due to policy choices and structural changes to the economy. The COVID-19 pandemic and tight labor market have shifted worker attitudes, leverage, and public opinion in favor of unions. Policymakers should support unionization efforts in this moment of heightened worker voice because unions provide economic benefits to workers, firms, and the overall economy.
In 1983 one in five US workers were members of a union; today roughly one in ten are. Private sector union membership in 2021 was just over 6 percent. The union membership rate temporarily increased in 2020 to 10.8 percent, but it has since fallen to pre-pandemic levels as the increase was largely due to labor force composition effects. During this time the share of national income going to labor has decreased, inequality has increased, productivity has been inconsistent, and many industries have had significant consolidation. Evidence suggests that the decline of unions during this period has been a major factor in these macroeconomic trends.
Unionization in the United States has declined in part due to long-running structural changes to the economy. Technological advancement and globalization altered supply chains and business processes, negatively impacting some workers who lost their jobs to automation or outsourcing. However, the United States has among the lowest unionization rates of advanced economies due to specific policy choices as well. “Right to Work” laws in many states, worker classification rules, and changes to the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) regulatory authority have weakened workers’ bargaining power. In addition, the present enforcement apparatus for labor law compliance does not incentivize strict adherence from firms. Violations are infrequently caught, and financial penalties are often too low to affect behavior.
Encouraging and incentivizing more unionization in the United States would have micro and macro benefits. For example, unionized workers receive higher wages. A worker represented by a union earns 10.2 percent more in wages than a peer in the same sector with comparable experience, education, and occupation. Unionized workers are also far more likely than equivalent nonunion workers to have essential benefits such as health insurance, retirement benefits, and paid sick leave. Lastly, unionized workers are likely to work in safer working environments and unions help ensure more extensive job training.
Evidence shows that unions not only benefit workers, but employers as well. Firms with unionized workers benefit from higher labor productivity and retention. Research also notes that unions do not have a negative impact on employer solvency rates.
Aside from individual unions and firms, the economic benefits of unionization have positive macro spillovers. Higher wages for union workers create competition in local labor markets, which leads nonunionized firms in the same geographic area to raise wages. Benefits such as health insurance and job training also frequently spill over to nonunion workers in local labor markets. In addition, workplace standards that unions negotiate and advocate for have often become industry norms. Unionization also helps address racial economic disparities. Finally, unionization has intergenerational effects. Union density is a strong predictor of economic mobility compared to similar non-union households. Collectively, these spillovers create a more productive labor force and equitable economy.
Although unionization rates have declined in recent decades despite clear economic benefits, the pandemic may have instigated a shift in dynamics. Some workers have changed their attitudes about which working conditions and level of pay are acceptable after enduring the pandemic and working in challenging circumstances. Union organizing has increased this year, public support for unions is the highest it’s been since 1965, and the tight US labor market has created leverage for workers. In the years to come workers may have additional leverage because there will be even fewer prime-age US workers due to aging demographics.
US policymakers have recently taken important steps to advance union efforts. For example, the Biden administration has pushed forward a variety of regulatory steps to make union organizing easier for federal workers and private-sector employees. The Department of Labor released a proposal to reclassify gig workers, and the NLRB proposed a rule that would make parent companies more legally liable for labor law violations committed by associated contractors or franchisees. The administration also included prevailing wage and apprenticeship requirements in major legislation such as the CHIPS Act and Inflation Reduction Act. While these are positive steps, Congress should pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act as soon as possible. Innovative organizing efforts at the state level also need to be fostered. For example, California recently passed a law that would establish “sectoral bargaining,” which is more common in other advanced economies.
As stakeholders navigate the opportunity to grow union membership they should recognize the benefits of new technology and globalization, even though they also present risks. Increased unionization can help harness these benefits and manage the risks. Stakeholders must also be cognizant of the macroeconomic environment—inflation is a substantial problem and US GDP growth is slowing—and act accordingly to gain labor rights in a sustainable manner that won’t reverse should a recession occur.
Jeff Goldstein is a contributor to the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center. During the Obama administration he served as the Deputy Chief of Staff and Special Assistant to the Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. He also worked at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Views and opinions expressed are strictly his own.